March 22, 2011

A theory of courage

Then the Awful Fight Began (1908) by George Wright, by way of wikipedia.

British writer and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, in addition to being the author of whole Ring cycle, was one of the 20th century's greatest scholars of Anglo-Saxon language and literature. He was also the author of a famous and influential essay (originally a lecture) on Beowulf, which was called, appropriately enough, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."

I find it interesting not just for what it has to say about the medieval poem but for his suggestion of "a theory of courage" even in the face of final defeat, something that I think has practical applications for people who care about social justice. We don't appear to be heading for a happy ending, after all.

Like his good friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was a pious Christian with a soft spot for paganism, especially the Northern European variety. According to some major strands of that tradition, things are not going to end well. The gods and good men are destined to fight against monsters at the end of the world--and lose. But they are willing to fight on any way with no hope of victory in time or even salvation beyond the grave.

As Tolkien put it in the Beowulf essay,

One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature….I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North…..’The Northern Gods’, Ker said, ’have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason ‘- mythologically, the monsters –‘but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.’ And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this ‘absolute resistance, perfect because without hope’.

In other words, Tolkien suggests that it is not only possible to carry on the struggle with no hope of final vindication, but that in some ways it is more admirable.

I think I'm with him on this one.

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Elizabeth Gaucher said...

Very well done. You are freaking me out a little these days, I'm so sad that you are down the cause, but I understand where you are and why. I love this post.

Rebecca said...

Excellent post! This is more or less how I feel about principles, in general, not just courage.

I don't know if you know about this website, but I think you'll get a kick out of it. It's called Philosophy Bro and it does really excellent summaries of various philosophical ideas in the character of a "bro" (i.e., annoying frat guy who refers to all his friends as his 'bros', 'Broseph', Broseidon, etc.) The philosophy is actually really good. This post is about empiricism vs. rationalism.

El Cabrero said...

Thanks for the note and sorry about the freak thing. I just think that view can help put things in perspective sometime.

Thanks to you as well. I'll check out the link.